In Newton, an affluent suburb of Boston, three high school students have died by suicide in the last four months.
From a community forum to formal school letters, parents have heard mainly about the links between suicide and mental illness. But Dr. Gonzalo Bacigalupe, a Newton dad and president of the American Family Therapy Academy, thought that no one was addressing head-on the elephant in the room. He went public this week in a post headlined, "Is High-Achiever School Culture Breaking Our Kids?"
It quickly went viral. His concerns will sound familiar to parents from Palo Alto to Westchester, who see their sleep-deprived children struggling to meet the sky-high expectations of their top-scoring high schools and their hoped-for colleges. And his post evoked an outpouring of comments from Newton and beyond. They ranged from concrete examples of how teachers exacerbate the pressure on kids to arguments that it's really the students themselves — and their parents — who should be blamed for the stress.
Here, Dr. Bacigalupe, a professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, argues that this painful discussion, though fraught, is healthy. He calls on schools to let parents help more in the difficult task of supporting students through this most vulnerable period. And he calls for an overarching community plan to make teens' quality of life as high as their test scores.
By Dr. Gonzalo Bacigalupe
A week ago, when I began writing my column calling for a different conversation about this year’s tragic series of suicides in Newton, I could not have imagined that I would spend the following week responding to the comments it evoked. It is a privilege to participate in this conversation and a tremendous responsibility to have initiated such a powerful public dialogue through this blog, social media, mainstream media and confidential email exchanges with parents, adolescents and colleagues.
Most of the exchanges have been civil and passionate, and they reflect a real need for a dialogue among parents, our children, the school staff, public officials and the community at large. This is a difficult conversation; everyone who has engaged in it wishes it weren't something we needed to talk about. The suicide of a child is a devastating blow to all our lives.
I am deeply grateful to all of you who responded, even those who seemed to misunderstand my position; I appreciate your telling everyone where you stand, of sharing your stories. This is the exercise of community democracy and connection that this tragedy calls for. The dilemmas we confront are not unique to Newton. Many communities have confronted similar tragedies and are trapped in the worshiping of children’s high achievement at all cost.
It is simply immoral to accept suicide as part of the cost of educating successful citizens.
Having lived in Newton for almost two decades, I have a deep love for this community — a safe, beautiful, very privileged city, packed with intelligent, highly accomplished individuals from all walks of life. It is the city I call my own after having immigrated to this country 26 years ago.
My own two children, one a graduate and the other a current student, have used the academic opportunities that these institutions offer but have also struggled with some of the tensions we have been addressing in this dialogue. Although some readers responded angrily that I was blaming teachers and the school staff, my intention was to invite everyone to assess our own responsibility in making the learning experiences of our children less stressful.
This is not about choosing between lowering stress and encouraging high achievement. This is a false choice; it is simply immoral to accept suicide as part of the cost of educating successful citizens. In a television interview this week, I suggested that if we have been able to develop a culture of high expectations and achievement, we should also be able to foster an environment in which every teen thrives.
We have the resources to prevent the occurrence of these tragedies. Preparing our children to live in a demanding and changing work landscape does not mean that we have to push them over the edge to test their survival skills when they are at the most developmentally vulnerable stage in their lives.
Their brains are still growing. Teens rely heavily on the parts of the brain that house the emotional centers when making decisions; the more rational, frontal regions of their brains are not fully developed. Their decision-making may often be impaired by the emotional, social and cognitive demands of adolescence.
Each teen is obviously different and evolving; we must treat them accordingly and, as parents and others who love these children, we are probably the experts at that assessment. Why do the schools not invite more conversation with parents about their children’s needs?
Beyond that, why do schools not encourage parents to participate more actively in their children’s educational experiences? How many teachers know what their students’ parents do, their skills and their achievements? In our town there are accomplished scientists, professionals, artists, trade workers, business owners, politicians and more. Why not invite them to inspire students by talking about how they use mathematics in their careers, or engage them in conversations between local experts (who happen to be parents!) on health care reform or economic inequality or the effects of sleep deprivation on academic achievement?
It is about opening up what seems a fortress rather than a milieu for community interaction.
It is not the content of those discussions that matters the most; what’s important is making parents part of the overall learning of all of our children. It is about opening up what seems a fortress rather than a milieu for community interaction.
Many parents, and some professionals, wrote to me personally about children who were pulled out of the school and placed in a private school because parents felt dismissed in their concerns about their children’s stress. Or, of children who despite their amazing success after graduating from high school always perceived themselves as somehow lacking, in deficit.
The perception that being a parent who cares or advocates will lead to being labeled a “helicopter parent” by staffers can create serious barriers to collaborative engagement.
Parents are trapped in a no-win paradox. If we engage, we are perceived as too intrusive. If we do not connect with teachers, we are seen as indifferent and disengaged. Many parents are afraid that conversations among school staff, despite their best intentions, are often demeaning to parents.
I do really believe teachers care about their students. I also teach, I know this is a tough job, and it is the source of a lot of pressure from administrators, students and parents. But this is the nature of the job, and it is why we invest tremendous resources — “public” means we pay real estate taxes to support our schools. We have the right to demand that those who work in our public school system be responsive to our concerns. We are not the enemy.
One of my biggest concerns in this tragedy has been the lack of a community response of our school system officials. Addressing the aftermath of a suicide through crisis response and grief counseling seems appropriate and necessary. In addition, there are programs to detect and assess which children may be at higher risk. But we are missing two important elements of a complete response — elements that address the fact that any suicide, or suicide attempt, stems from multiple causes.
• First, the vulnerability to attempting suicide may not only be related to serious mental health problems like depression, post-traumatic disorders or severe anxiety. It can also be related to lack of social capital, isolation and cultural factors including, for instance, the immigrant experience of many of our teens. For immigrant families, learning to navigate the various systems that support a child at school should not be taken for granted. Indeed, the “language” of school is quite complex and vast.
It takes time, for example, for even an educated parent to understand the difference between an AP, Honors or Curriculum One class, and all its variations. In my experience, even affluent communities make too many assumptions about the community in which we live. In Newton, 22 percent of public school students are English language learners — a 74 percent increase since 2005, with 70 different languages spoken by their families. A sizable group has an income much lower than the average high income, or one single parent or two working parents in highly stressful jobs. For many parents, even some affluent immigrants, the culture of the school can be a mystery. The school system needs to do a better job of reducing the mystery for all parents.
• Second, we need to have a public conversation and together develop a strategy that systemically addresses the cultural dilemma in which we are stuck. I am not sure what our community is planning; an initiative proposed by the Department of Health was considered by the City Council, but I don’t know what its status is since no public officer has contacted me. Therefore, I don’t have information about the city’s or the schools’ efforts to strengthen suicide prevention efforts. As a concerned parent who has been willing to share his opinion in public, I find this troublesome. If I don’t know, I doubt that any other parents do, either.
We can learn from communities that faced the same dilemmas. We need, as the Palo Alto City documents state, “public schools where all children thrive emotionally, socially, and academically.” A supportive school environment will not be born just from the efforts of school personnel; it requires the participation of the whole community. We need families involved, and also alumni, the elderly and all the social institutions that constitute the community as a whole. It has to be a process that is long term, a sustained effort.
We need to invest in organizers and experts at leading difficult conversations across a community. We need to enlist social scientists that can help us continuously understand what parents and students are concerned about. One survey will not do it, but several will help, and they should be made public for discussion and implementation.
Many cities and towns (including Needham, Mass., which went through a similar tragedy a few years ago) have developed community coalitions to address suicide proactively. Each of these cities confronted the dilemma as a community. Not only did they implement generally accepted best practices, but they also involved the whole community in designing a local innovation that addresses the specifics of that community.
If our ranking of educational achievement is one of the highest in the country, we should also create a community that ranks at the top in quality of life for our children and teenagers. We are not a war-torn or economically deprived community; we are one of the most privileged places on earth. We can do better.
Readers, thoughts? The 250+ responses to Dr. Bacigalupe's first post are in the comments section here.
Further reading/listening: Newton Grapples With Teen Suicides (Radio Boston, Feb. 11, 2014)